F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises both define the culture of the 1920s through the behaviors and thoughts of their characters. The characters in both novels have a sense of sadness and emptiness, which they resolve through sex and alcohol. This can be attributed to the disillusionment surrounding the Great War, better known as World War I. Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby represents the Jazz Age and high life of the 1920s, in contrast to Brett Ashley as the New Woman of the 1920s and Jake Barnes’s embodiment of the Lost Generation in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. The Great Gatsby illustrated people reaching for the “American Dream.” The Sun Also Rises instills a “permanent emotion,” what many members of the “Lost Generation” searched for, into the reader by presenting a sense of nostalgia for the better past.
Fitzgerald’s 1920s was full of life, flappers, money, alcohol and jazz. It was a time of happy spirits, never ending wealth and the American Dream. Many believed that through hard work and perseverance one could be as rich as they wanted. One could own a mansion and a car and the latest fashions and live the high life. The flapper, a major symbol of the 1920s, wore their hair short and bobbed, make-up that was applied in public, and baggy short dresses that exposed skin. She thought fast, talked fast and was perhaps even a bit brazen. “They’re all desperadoes, these kids, all of them with any life in their veins; the girls as well as the boys; maybe more than the boys.”(Fabian) Money encompassed the spirit of the times. It represented the pop life, modern days, happiness and the American Dream and everybody wanted it.
It seemed that there was not a soul who was not fashionably chic and dressed like they were rich. Everybody drank alcohol even though it was illegal; a party in a Harlem nightclub wouldn’t be as much fun without alcohol. Who couldn’t resist the sweet upbeat tunes of jazz music flowing through brass instruments? “…Jazz is a joyous revolt from convention, custom, authority, boredom, even sorrow.”(Rogers) Originally, jazz sprang from the African-American culture, but the young people of the 1920s adopted the music and even began playing it themselves. Dances such as the Charleston, Black Bottom, the Shimmy, and Fox Trot, were invented to accompany the upbeat music. (Watson) All of these elements are included in The Great Gatsby.
Jay Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s novel is the archetype male of the 1920s. He has it all: money, a handsome figure, a mansion, a cream-colored automobile, British lingo, and some sort of inexplicable charm about him. He is new money living in West Egg. Yet despite his lavish parties and impressive mansion he is never be accepted by those who live in East Egg, where old money lives. The West Egg and East Egg are peninsulas that are a mere few miles apart where the only separation is the bay. (Fitzgerald) Fitzgerald’s peninsulas represent the same gap many Americans had to face in the 1920s.
The two peninsulas are so close that Gatsby is able to see the green light coming from the Buchanan’s dock yet he cannot take hold of the light because he isn’t allowed to be a part of the society of Daisy Buchanan, his unattainable love who is married to Tom Buchanan. Fitzgerald uses Gatsby to focus on the American dream. It is his undying hope. Gatsby believes soon he will be able to be part of Daisy’s life. His optimism is so strong that in response to Nick Carraway’s comment “You can’t repeat the past,” he says, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”(Fitzgerald) He believes he can make anything happen. Even his disastrous end is caused by not himself but those who did not want him to succeed.
Just as the American Dream was the central part of life in the 1920s so it is in The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald both as a writer and a man understood the American Dream and its risks and rewards. Fitzgerald had lived the American Dream. He, just like Gatsby, had desired an unattainable love whom he couldn’t have until he was rich and successful. The 1920s was the dawning of the American materialistic age and where acceptance and wealth were of the utmost importance. It is the idea that still exists today in American culture. Fitzgerald also describes the careless and senseless parties that took place during his time, similar to the parties Gatsby had. It was all about the money and if one couldn’t have it, one would turn to sex and alcohol. (Sklar)
Hemingway’s experience of the 1920s was almost the opposite of Fitzgerald’s. Sex and a great deal of alcoholism were apparent and were used to subdue the everlasting sadness caused by World War I. The young men went to war between the ages of 18 and 25, when they would have normally become civilized. Many of these people lived to find a permanent emotion or nostalgia after living through the disillusionment of the Great War. Paris was the expatriate capital. It was where the boldest modernists were. Many Americans who survived the war wanted to escape the newfound materialistic life and traveled to Paris and other major cities in Europe.
Gertrude Stein called these people the Lost Generation and invented the term. Many were writers, artists and creative thinkers, including Hemingway. Many had hoped to experience their very own bohemian and artistic being in Paris. Though the term first came to apply to those who had just come out of the war, the Lost Generation gradually became all American expatriates and in particular those with artistic and literary preferences. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises expresses the uncivilized and aimless Americans who lived in Paris, and later Pamplona, Spain, who personified the term Lost Generation. (Mills)
Lady Brett Ashley and Jake Barnes are two characters that display the qualities of the Lost Generation. Brett is seen as a “New Woman” of the 1920s. Jake describes her hair being brushed back “like a boy’.” (Hemingway) She is trapped amid two styles of gender depictions: that of the “woman on a platform” and that of the independent and sexually liberated “contemporary women”. In contrast to flappers, “New Women” were educated and a product of an industrialized city. Brett values her body and doesn’t believe in the value of a family. Brett is single and carelessly sleeps around with other men. She snubs feminine models of cleanliness, faithfulness, and obedience. Instead Brett insists on sexual independence and self-expression while ignoring the rules of a patriarchal marriage. Robert Cohen, a recent lover of Brett’s, comments she is Circe, turns men into pigs and controls them using sex and simulated love. This later turns the men against each other. Brett is seen as a threat to the social order of her group of which she is the only female. (Hemingway)
Jake, out of all the characters in the novel, is the most civilized character and is usually embarrassed by his friends. He is still a member of the Lost Generation yet he is more civilized than the others. To compensate for his more civilized nature he constantly drinks alcohol, which was how much of the Lost Generation spent their time. He is also the modern protagonist in the novel. He is an American and a contemporary man who has seen through the political and nationalist front wall of the war to assured facts about modern hostility embodied by World War One.
Jake’s war injury, genital injury, represents the impotence of modernity and a media-flooded ethical and religious alienation. Jake’s infertility juxtaposed to Spain’s fertile country allude to the clichéd idea of the 1920s of a lost legitimacy or completeness such as bullfighting and boxing. Jake’s wild interest in bullfighting is a part of his search for the permanent emotion that he searches for as well as Hemingway did. He carries nostalgia of how good life was before his war injury and wishes he could return to the past. (Finnegan)
While Hemingway put much of himself into Jake’s character, he resented the women of the Lost Generation. He correctly characterized the people and culture of the 1920s by making the nature of the characters in his novel intolerable and primitive. He made the novel self-conscious of the primitive images it presents, knowing they are a modernist cliché of his time. Just like much of the Lost Generation, Hemingway searched for a pure style that would permanently capture an emotion. This was also considered as “a civilized nostalgia for a barbaric world of tragedy and triumph.” This deep “reactionary level of thought” can be seen throughout The Sun Also Rises and the Lost Generation. (Finnegan)
The two novels focus on American life since after the Great War Americans held a new philosophy of materialism that Europeans did not. Americans started to believe that the more property that was owned the better their chances of succeeding economically and socially. Because of this newfound materialism, many writers including Hemingway and Fitzgerald, were attracted to Americans. It was the Americans’ belief in the American Dream and the feeling of no place in the world and continual circling of the world, the Lost Generation, that influenced the characters’ decisions and actions in both novels hence the names The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises. Fitzgerald titled his novel The Great Gatsby for the reason of Gatsby’s never ending optimism as Hemingway titled his novel The Sun Also Rises to allude to the excerpt of Ecclesiastes he placed at the beginning of the novel, “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth gown, and hasteth to the place where he arose.” (Hemingway)
Hemingway used The main difference between Fitzgerald and Hemingway, as well as they way they thought and wrote, is that Fitzgerald avoided war service while Hemingway served the Italian army and encountered a near death experience. If one were to try to learn about the people of the 1920’s through a textbook they would not learn the people’s behavior and general attitudes on life in general. One wouldn’t be able to be captured by that permanent emotion Hemingway constantly searched for and one couldn’t experience the struggles of Fitzgerald’s American Dream. One couldn’t experience the new revolutionary modern way of writing that Fitzgerald and Hemingway had impressively presented.
Jim Finnegan. The Sun Also Rises (1926) Lecture Notes (Last Day of Discussion). Fall 2001. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. http://www2.english.uiuc.edu/finnegan/English%20251/sunrises.html> November 28, 2004
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Collier Books Macmillan Publishing Company, 1925.
Flaming Youth. Warner Fabian. John Francis Dillon. 1923.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Collier Books Macmillan Publishing Company, 1926.
Ian C. Mills. Hemingway’s Paris. 1998-1999. DiscoverFrance.net.
Rogers, J.A. “Jazz at Home.” The Survey Graphic. 1925
Sklar, Robert. The Plastic Age, 1917-1930. New York: George Braziller, 1970.
Sonny Watson. Swingstreet.com. 1999. http://www.streetswing.com/histmain/z3jazz1.htm November 26, 2004